Would-be expats often ask me what I consider to be the essentials when planning a new life in another country. My answer is always the same, to learn the language.
You could say that I am not a natural at learning languages. As an eleven-year-old starting at my new grammar school in Lincolnshire, I was forced to learn a language that I did not like, a culture that I had no empathy with and a country that I did not wish to spend any time in. Sorry, Francophiles, but yes, I am talking about the French language. Maybe it was the teacher, the quality of teaching or simply the sound of the language that I disliked, but I quickly learned, in the style of Del Boy, that ‘un petit pois’ was not for me and it was true that I have never ventured further into the country other than a day out in Cherbourg, which was more than enough for me.
Latin hit me in a slightly different way. Dead and dusty it may have been, but the subject was taught in a more effective fashion and with a degree of humour by my old headmaster. He was a strict disciplinarian whom I liked and respected, and I made adequate progress. After all, he was well prepared and seemed to enjoy teaching, which was a pleasant change when I considered some of his colleagues. He made a dead language sound broadly entertaining and the sounds that were uttered fell rather more easily upon my sensitive ears. However, I could see little point in the endless conjugation and chanting of those wretched verbs and “amo, amas, amant...” will forever ring in my ears. It was during one of my grumbles that I was told in no uncertain terms that I would need the subject to become a doctor, vet or pharmacist, or if I wished to apply for Oxford or Cambridge universities. I realised then that it would be of no use to me at all, as I had neither the academic prowess nor wish to follow any of these career options.
It was finally decision time. I had already dropped Latin and was doing my best to avoid French, using a variety of means of which I had become a master. As I completed my fifth year at the school, I was told in no uncertain terms that I had either to take on another language or it was an additional two lessons a week on the playing field. To me this possibility of yet more ‘hell on earth’ really was sufficient motivation to find another language very quickly. I hated the torment of rugby, cricket and cross-country running that schools such as mine were so keen to encourage.
German was an option and eagerly followed by many of my peers as we entered the sixth form. However, it is not a nice language to listen to, is it? It is far too guttural and makes sounds that I wouldn't wish to make in polite company. I have only to hear a short passage of a German opera to confirm that my decision not to learn the language was the correct one. Now, what about Italian? Yes, a musical language that is one of beauty, sincerity and where, I was assured, my Latin would come in useful. The only problem was that my school didn't offer it.
The truth finally dawned. To be successful in life I would need just three languages to conquer the world - English, Chinese and Spanish. I reasoned that with these three languages I could visit just about anywhere and do anything. My request for Chinese lessons was greeted with a stony faced, disinterested stare from my housemaster before I was bawled out of his study for wasting his time. Undaunted I decided to have a chat with one of the school secretaries, a charming young woman who rather liked me, I thought. A hurried whisper when her colleague disappeared into the stock room revealed that “Spanish lessons are off for the time being”. This, I learned, followed an unfortunate incident between the newly appointed young Spanish teacher and the middle-aged gym master in the sports equipment cupboard the previous week. In those days, I was far too naive and polite to ask for further details, but I had a vivid imagination. So Russian it had to be.
Russian? Yes, for an established grammar school in the middle of fenland Lincolnshire to be offering such a language did make several eyebrows shoot upwards, least of all my father’s. Nowadays, it would no doubt be considered ‘cool’ and it certainly brought many a conversation to a halt when announced, which I rather enjoyed. I was one of an ‘elite’ group of eight sixth formers who were ‘encouraged’ to take it on as a two-year option. It was my housemaster who told me the ‘elite’ part of the deal. I now think he was being cynical, but I believed him at the time although I do recall being surprised by his sudden concern and generosity. However, anything other than the sports field was a bonus, although given my track record in languages, it was a miracle that I managed to get on the course. Initially it appeared that my school was pushing boundaries in offering Russian. After all, in those days, the cold war appeared to be very much a threat to Western nations. However, I suspect that this seemingly enlightened addition to the curriculum was more to do with the fact that it would attract additional funding, staffing and publicity for the school rather than a genuine attempt to break down political and cultural barriers. Still, I was one of the ‘elite’ band of eight.
Sadly, it was to be a disaster. Even though my interest in literature had led me to become an admirer of the work of Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy, I was not prepared for the lesson to be taught by one of the most boring and disinterested teachers that I have ever had the misfortune to meet. Mr. Edwards had recently returned from studying a crash course in Russian at Leningrad University and was only a few pages ahead of his students in the textbook. However, looking back, it was not that bad and many afternoons when Mr. Edwards didn't even bother to turn up for the lesson, I spent many hours in the agreeable company of my peers, arguing the virtues and otherwise of a communist state and other such concerns of spotty teenagers who were about to change the world. Also, I did learn sufficient to ask about the weather in Moscow and to say “I love you” in Russian, which was a bonus.
Many years later, as a school inspector in Wales, I was amazed at the ease with which four- and five-year-old English-speaking children could learn a second language - Welsh. I hasten to add that I was not inspecting the Welsh language - that was left to a colleague specialising in the subject. However, my exposure to these children in the playground during break times, experiencing the ease with which they switched from their mother tongue to another, admittedly very difficult language to learn, both humbled and amazed me.
This all brings me back to my main point. I now know that learning the language of my host country is essential. Not only for the basic communication of need, but it is necessary to learn out of respect for the language and culture of my newly adopted country. However, do I miss the nuance of understanding that I have in English? As yet, I am not content with understanding the gist of what is being said, as I want more detail to be able to understand innuendo and to joke in Spanish – but all potentially dangerous stuff for a foreigner!
Learning Spanish later in life is not easy. However, I am pleased to say that I can now understand far more of what is said and written and I have growing confidence in being able to speak the language. Indeed, one of my highlights recently was to receive a certificate of competence in learning the language - admittedly at beginner’s level. That young Spanish teacher and the gym master in the sports cupboard at my old school have a lot to answer for, don’t you think?
© Barrie Mahoney 2023
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